Sunday, November 7, 2010

Assigning positive intent

The 13th chapter of First Corinthians famously defines some attributes of love.

The New Living Translation reads:

1Cr 13:4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud

1Cr 13:5 or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged.

1Cr 13:6 It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.

1Cr 13:7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

A love that is not irritable, that keeps no record of wrongs, is a love that assigns positive intent to others' actions.

For example, imagine you are driving down the freeway, and someone cuts you off. Two possible reactions would be:

  1. "How dare he!  Some people are so selfish and rude.  It's a dog eat dog world and I have to stand up for myself."  Maybe you chase the offender down in a case of road rage.  Or you don't but spend the rest of the drive feeling irritated.  Maybe your driving becomes a little more aggressive without you noticing.
  2. "He must be in a hurry.  Maybe he didn't see me.  I hope he gets where he's going safely." And you easily forget the incident and return to driving. 
As you can see from the different outcomes in the two examples, assigning positive intent to others is a healthy mental habit as well as a fulfillment of God's command to love others.

Jesus told us through the parable of the sheep and the goats that how we treat even the least of these is important to him. Therefore, I would argue that babies and children should be assigned positive intent as much as anyone else.

When a baby cries, positive intent says that the baby is trying to communicate a need, whether that be to be held, fed, changed, or just paid attention. But there are some that would claim that baby is trying to manipulate its parents.

When a toddler doesn't comply, positive intent says the toddler lacks impulse control and needs more help and closer supervision. But there are some who label the toddler as defiant and prescribe a spanking or time out to teach them a lesson.

When a very young child doesn't tell the truth, positive intent says that "words as magic" is a stage of cognitive development and the child honestly believes that by saying something he makes it true. Asking "Is that the truth, or just the truth like you wish it was?" and not asking questions we already know the answer to is a simple way to teach the value of truth. But there are some who would call that child a liar who must be punished.

Assigning positive intent doesn't mean justifying antisocial or unwanted behavior or letting the child "get away with it." It simply means we don't rile up our own emotions with unnecessary labels and negative assumptions. We can then deal calmly, firmly and kindly with the child and situations that arise.

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